Tarzan el Hombre Mono, as I first knew him, is back and I'm glad. I feel like he and I grew up together. He in the jungle of the vividly drawn comic strips and the old movies. I at home devouring comics and movies on TV. My first awareness of Africa came from Tarzan stories, and from movies I saw in Catholic school about missionaries in the Dark Continent, all the racism of Tarzan movies without the fun.
The new movie comes at a time of keen racial awareness, and a flurry of criticism is taking on how certain issues play out in The Legend of Tarzan. I have yet to see it, but I will because I love a ripping adventure yarn.
His whiteness in black Africa didn't bother me for a long time. After all, all the heroes I knew about were white. I was white. What could be the problem? With time, this attitude changed. Both in my head and in popular culture. Movies about white people in Africa developed self-consciousness. Like the wonderful Black and White in Color (1976), that allows the spectator to learn through subtitles the devastating things the "natives" are saying about the white colonialists -- a device used later in a broader comic turn in George of the Jungle (1996) . Or White Mischief (1987), where the very title says all. Or the delightfully nasty Coup de Torchon (1981).
The last big entertainment movie I saw that was unabashedly about white folk in the bush was the gorgeous Out of Africa (1985) -- I'd kill for the clothes the colonialists wore. And now, once more, Tarzan. Self consciously. Uh oh.
Atrocities inflicted on Africans in the Belgian Congo overwhelm any text that is not about them, never mind one that's a ripping good yarn about a white superhero. This is where the reboot of pop culture runs into trouble, the kind that tripped up Johnny Depp's The Lone Ranger (2013) when, appropriating devices from Little Big Man (1970), it tried to deal with genocide.
Still, I plan to see The Legend of Tarzan. For all his racism, Edgar Rice Burroughs was on to something. Something satisfying. I wonder if I would feel differently about el Hombre Mono, if I were African or African-American. Or female, for that matter. But I'm a white Latino boy, a sucker for adventure fantasies, wishing I could swing from vines, wrestle man-eating beasts and look good in a loin cloth.
Not to mention belting out that blood-curdling cry.